Endebt and Punish

William Hogarth, "The Rake's Progress"--in the Fleet Prison for debt

Yesterday the M1 student march in New York stopped for personal and institutional histories. On three occasions people I’m working with at undergraduate, MA and PhD level recounted how debt has deformed their lives. I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.

The accounts moved from an angry and articulate sophomore via an MA, who is teaching three adjunct jobs to keep up her payments, to a PhD candidate looking at 30 years of repaying $800-1000 a month. Hearing such stories one after another made it seem structural: the further one advances, the greater the debt and so the greater the pressure to conform.

The graduate students both spoke about wanting to stay in education, while not being sure that they could afford the profession. It’s the contemporary Student’s Progress, which, like a modernization of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, does not so much end in debtor’s prison as begin there–only it’s the “soul” that is imprisoned, not the body.

I started to think that debt was parallel to the transformation of the legal system over time. If Foucault taught us to think of early modern corporal punishment being transformed into modern discipline in the nineteenth century, Angela Davis has supplemented that analysis with her description of the prison-industrial system. Thus the penitentiary was instituted in the aftermath of abolition both to control and contain the free African population and to create lend-lease minimal cost labor to replace chattel slavery. The binary turns out not to be as simple as we had thought.

So we might think to map a parallel and intertwined structure for debt. In the early modern period, common people were hanged or otherwise punished for minor debt and theft. Those of higher social rank might find themselves incarcerated in the Fleet prison–bankrupts and those charged with contempt of the courts of Chancery, Exchequer and common pleas were not the working classes. Violent crime and theft was the province of the Court of the King’s Bench and the Assizes. The Fleet therefore usually contained only about 300 inmates, many of whom were well-known. It was closed in 1844, while imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1869.

This apparently Foucauldian pattern needs complicating. As David Graeber points out in his brilliant Debt, the violent punishments against debt crime were rarely enforced in the late Middle Ages, which is not to say there was no bad feeling:

the criminalization of debt was the criminalization of the very basis of human society. It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both a lender and a borrower….[C]ommunities, much though they are based on love, in fact because they are based on love will also be full of hatred, rivalry and passion.

The innovation of the “market” in the late eighteenth century was to challenge the possibility of such intertwined community by creating a new self-love, to quote the most famous passage of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776):

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love.

Graeber shows that the concept of self-love, or self interest, creates a new hybrid: a singular “self” that owes nothing except to itself; and “interest” that is paid to that self, now registered as “love.”

We might see Bentham’s Panopticon as a machine for the production of such self-interested operatives. For it was intended to function as well for the manufactures, or factories, as it did for the prison or asylum. Writing in the Panopticon Letters (1788) a decade after Smith, Bentham noted of Panoptic surveillance: “Each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time.” If I follow Graeber’s suggestions correctly, we should as much stress the singularity as the permanence: it is the process of breaking up mutually-endebted communities and the subsequent production of self-interested individuals with singular debts.

With the end of the reforming Panopticon around the same time as the resurgence of financialization (c.1975-81) has come a new configuration: the individual is “locked into” debt from the earliest age. If this debt is centered around education, it is more likely to apply to middle and upper-middle class children, who may have college savings plans created for them at birth or before. This debt is now the largest sector of consumer debt in the US economy at about $1 trillion, and it is regarded as highly secure because you cannot declare bankruptcy on student debt and agencies can even garner debtors’ Social Security.

What has further changed is the transformation of the equation of interest and love into what I think we want to call hate. It’s not enough to make sure most graduates have their lives locked into debt before they even graduate. Everyone has to suffer.

When I was in Arizona recently, I heard about a proposal from the Arizona State legislature to require even students who have full scholarships or grants to pay at least $2000 in tuition. Here’s the legalese (in blue block capitals on their site):

each student who is a full‑time student enrolled at a university under the jurisdiction of the Arizona board of regents in fiscal year 2012‑2013 shall personally contribute at least two thousand dollars during the academic year for tuition.  A student may not use any other source of public or private funding, including grants, gifts, scholarships or tuition benefits or other types of funding administered by or through a university or an affiliate of a university, to reduce or eliminate that student’s contribution.

What is the motive of this “personal contribution”? Last night I happened to see a production of Brecht’s classic play Galileo. It begins by stressing Galileo’s debt. His need to repay his debt leads him to leave Venice and venture into the monk-controlled regions of Italy. When his decentering astronomical discoveries imply a different social order than the Bible-sanctioned control of the nobles, he recants under the threat of the Inquisition’s torture, ending his days in a physically comfortable prison of the soul. He ends as he begins, locked into a system that only debt can supply.

If debt is a means to teach you to hate yourself, it is also and equally true that the imagination is dangerous. Ideas can overturn social order. The most dangerous idea now might be this: it’s not worth paying for college because there are no jobs anyway and no job that you want would pay you enough to service the debt.